Burdened with the nigh-impossible task of following up one of the decade’s most significant albums in Ten, Pearl Jam were facing a welcome but tough crowd when Vs. hit two years later. Actually, given their debut’s slow rise to iconic status – having been drowned out for most of ’91 by the Nirvana fetish and not really bleeding over into mainstream rock until the following year on Nevermind‘s coattails – Vs. wasn’t nearly as long a wait as it seemed for the throngs of wholehearted PJ neophytes hungry for fresh material.
For as many units as it pushed in its first few weeks on the shelves, though, Vs., oddly enough, marked the beginning of their commercial dip, a trajectory that would both propel some of their most distinct material to date with their third album, Vitalogy, and haunt them as sizable portions of the PJ faithful simply lost interest over the coming years. This was, in part, due to Eddie & Co.’s refusal to push overpriced singles of the album’s more user-friendly standouts like “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” As hindsight has proven, however, what subliminally turned off a great deal of the band’s more casual fans was their seemingly egotistic dogmatism that began to seep to the surface with Vs. Pearl Jam traded stadium-sized packed houses for more modest venues for their ’94 tour and boiled up a much-needed controversy with Ticketmaster over price gouging – though, at the time, a bitter annoyance to those countless loyal fans who couldn’t nab one of the limited tickets quick enough. Using a black Sharpie to scrawl “Pro Choice” on your forearm is one thing, but snubbing mainstream prestige for an anti-corporate agenda, and at the expense of those willing to shell out $40 a ticket, was something their many “Jeremy” converts simply couldn’t stomach. On a purely musical level, too, Vs. left Pearl Jam slightly stunted as they continued to churn out the same heartfelt rock anthems they became known for, while shying away from the widespread popularity it provoked. That resulted in the first sightings of the band’s musical quirks that would eventually snuff out their creative ingenuity altogether.
What makes this album truly amazing, though, is how, despite all its surrounding stigma and early signs of stagnancy, Vs. hardly suffers in its sheer visceral impact. Flaring into full form with Jeff Ament’s percolating bass line for opener “Go,” only taking a short breath before blasting in recklessly with “Animal,” and settling into the sonorous acoustic strum of “Daughter,” Vs. is poised early on to match, if not better, its Ten predecessors. Even the album’s more politically driven songs, such as the anti-gun dogma behind “Glorified G,” women’s rights in “Dissident” and distaste for W.A.S.P. untouchability in “W.M.A.,” aren’t weighed down much under their heavy-handed ideology, but kept gritty through Vedder’s expanding vocal styles and the band’s tireless ferocity behind every lick. While “Blood” points ahead to the mindless bursts of punk rock energy that informed less than satisfying bits of Pearl Jam’s later albums, it remains one of Vs.‘ most aggressive successes and a clear distinction between this album’s emboldened musical direction and tried-and-true territory of Ten. Similar counterpoints can be had for each one of the album’s 12 tracks; even while foreshadowing a steady falling off, Vs. has yet to suffer any lasting effects, keeping its viscid potency and spry energy front and center.
Soundgarden – Superunknown
Neil Young – Rust Never Sleeps
Nirvana – Nevermind